Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Get Your Cowboy On:

Every day you see stuff in Mongolia that screams cowboy. In the morning, cowboys on horseback herd yaks, sheep, or camels out for grazing, and in the evening, the women go out and milk the beasts. Now and then, you may see men breaking in a bucking wild horse. In the small towns—often just a few buildings set out on the plains—you run into old cowboys wandering around drunk, as if you're in Tombstone, Ariz., and they've just come back from boozing with Doc Holliday.

That said, I'll admit that being in Central Asia does require certain adjustments. The horse saddles are generally made of wood. You don't pound whisky in the saloon; instead, you drink fermented horse milk in a ger. And the guns you'll see are old Soviet bolt-action models, not Winchester repeaters.

Traveling through deeper Mongolia is also a chance in this life to see what it is about the "endless plains" that once inspired so much writing and thought. There are places in America that are pretty empty. But endlessly empty is different. It means land free of any road or fence as far as the eye can see, and then beyond that, and then beyond that. The plains begin to feel more like ocean than land, open to being crossed in any way you'd like, free and unending. You start to realize how much your daily decisions are driven by paths, streets, and fences. Forget about the road less traveled and think no road at all.

After about a week of driving mixed with riding, we'd reached that mountain we spotted on the map back in Ulan Bator. We had reached the edge of the Altai range, just out of the Gobi desert, near the Chinese border. There we camped in a high plateau next to a single family's gers, sheep, and horses. We were their first foreign visitors in 17 years—the last was a Japanese fellow who lived in a tent for a year to study marmots.

12:14 PM